Why playing Skyrim makes you an Archaeologist

I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to get my head around just what it is that makes me so adamant that historical RPGs are somehow important to archaeological discourse. Something inside me is quite sure that gaming is this huge, untapped resource for knowledge-making.

A lot of this pondering  has consisted of me trawling through online forums and trying to figure out what kind of interactions people are having with the past during their gameplay.

I’m far from figuring out just what it is that makes people engage with the past in videogames (or if they are even aware of doing so) but I’m definitely getting to grips with the kinds of interactions people are having. Obviously, these interactions are multiple, but I’ll summarise the jist of it below.

Before I started digging about in the forums, I expected people to proclaim a desire to experience ancient, culturally rich lands – essentially taking on the role of one of their ancestors. Instead I found that the role people took on was more that of the archaeologist themselves. This approach to dealing with the game has been expressed directly by different individuals on different threads and forums.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. The aim of RPGs such as Skyrim is to solve mysteries and act out narratives – to follow material trails that lead to answers and cause stories to unfold before the player. Some gamers have a surprisingly in-depth knowledge of the extensive Elder Scrolls lore (fellow players will know that there is a whole plethora of historical and biographical books spread accross Tamriel, just waiting to be picked up and read by brave adventurers just like us). There are whole essays and discussions about human origins, heritage and descent, politics and race to be found, meticulously researched and written by players from across the globe.

Just some of the books that can be read in Skyrim. Image: elderscrolls.wikia.com/

As an archaeologist, I think I can safely say that what these players are doing is distinctly similar to scholarly archaeological practice. They’re engaging with the material culture within these digital landscapes, amalgamating and synthesising knowledge – they’re interpreting their findings. Not only are they doing that, but they are sharing their thoughts and knowledge with other players online, and engaging in meaningful discussions about their theories concerning the past.


12 thoughts on “Why playing Skyrim makes you an Archaeologist

  1. Pingback: Holiday Reamde | The Interpretation Game

  2. I imagine that not only is there someone (or, at the very least, a set of detailed documents) to outline the lore and time line of the Elder Scrolls series, but that there must be a compilation of concept art (largely unseen) that would explain the final decisions when it comes to modelling the world. It would be interesting to see the artists reasoning behind visual leaps in styles between the instalments (in art, decoration, architecture, armour, etc.) to see how they were informed or what they were informed by (as Andrew points out above).

    They obviously must take into account materials, purpose, and method when coming up with a building design for a particular location and culture, but how much are they limiting the spread of…say, in-game knowledge sharing between different races and cultures? It makes me want to go back and look at the various games to see whether each race that has a distinctive architectural style is limited to technologies and methods that you would associate with the materials they use and the buildings they have constructed, or whether the concept artists have given across-the-board knowledge to all the in-game races. As in, how much have the artists and developers applied the concept of progression of knowledge within the game; is it logical, or are they simply applying styles that give the right ‘feel’ without considering how or why a specific race in a specific geological region with specific cultural and social practices would arrive at that point?

    Sorry about the ramble. It’s a very nifty topic, and I’m glad Love Archaeology re-tweeted you, because it will be interesting to follow along with your thoughts!

    • Hi Melissa,

      I think that you make some really good points – I was just thinking about this yesterday whilst tweeting to Andrew.

      From the beginnings of my research I can see that there are whole communities of players devoting their time to the histories and lore of the Tamriel. I think the prime example is The Imperial Library (although it currently appears to be down)- a very interesting site that I actually found linked to on Bethesda’s official Elder Scrolls pages! I think one of the main interests of these fans is to find and create links between the games, make sense of the interwoven stories that they can see repeated in each of the Elder Scrolls installments. I find this really fascinating – they’re actually being historians and archaeologists and trying to make sense of when, how and where events took place.

      The fact that these communities are able to create such rich and in-depth, overarching histories for the world of Tamriel is, I think, proof that the developers at Bethesda have thought things through and have the direct intention of creating a world of interlinked societies. As to the material cultures on which the architecture and artefacts of Tamriel are based, and the variation and intermingling of technologies, I am entirely unsure. What a great idea for a study. I’m (and Andrew is – we tweeted about it yesterday!) pretty sure that this sort of study – the movement of material culture and even perhaps architectural styles – would really be ideally suited to the up-and-coming MMORPG, Elder Scrolls Online, which will be so highly social and will include vast amounts of movement accross the whole culture. I think only time will tell!

      Please don’t apologise for posting such a thought-provoking comment! I’m always so happy to hear other people’s opinions! I hope any future posts will be of interest to you :)

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  5. Hey Emily,
    I’m one of your twitter followers and a fellow MA student (doing Public Archaeology)! I was wondering, have you checked out the latest issue of LoveArchaeology? This magazine has published an article on Skyrim, written by some students at Glasgow I think. You should get in touch with them!
    All the best,

    • Hi Agathe!

      I have indeed seen Love Archaeology III and I did mention it in one of my other Skyrim-related posts… in fact it was one of the things that really set my mind racing about the archaeology of Skyrim!

      Thanks for sharing though, and please do feel free to post any thoughts on future posts!

  6. Let’s take this farther for a moment. The thing that has pinned me to my basement office chair is playing Skyrim (200 hours so far) as my first Elder Scrolls game, and *then* going backwards into Oblivion (no pun intended). As a “proper” archaeologist, I’m all of a sudden understanding more lore, and I must confess a preoccupation with Imperial accoutrements (pottery, armor, etc.), and how they appear in Oblivion compared to Skyrim where the Imperials have made headway into the land of the Nords. How does the design change, and why? I do plan on playing Morrowind next, going farther back in time, exploring a new geography, trying to follow threads within the lore while at the same time observing material culture of the NPCs and races in the game.

    This is something I’ve pursued with World of Warcraft, too, but in two directions. First, I played vanilla WoW, and ultimately gave up the habit when pandas ruled the world. I found it fascinating to be a part of history as the expansion packs came out and altered the world. I was elated and ultimately disappointed by the Archaeology discipline in Cataclysm. But now I want to dip back into pre-MMO Warcraft itself. And the archaeologist in me wants to document everything, draw conclusions, and geek out with pattern recognition.

    Surely there is a lore-master or game archivist at both Blizzard Entertainment and Bethesda Games. After reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde and seeing one of these as a character, I do think it’s likely the case, unless the companies are relying on chat rooms and reddit, vel sim, to make sure they’ve got their story straight. But what of the design of simple pots, of peasant threads? Where do the designers go to see what came before, and how do they make decisions to carry those designs forward into the next world, or to abandon them for something new? We ask the same of ancient artisans as we study what was left behind.

    The archaeology of games is a very real thing and deserves a forum of its own for future exploration, speculation, and outright scholarship.

    • Hi Andrew!

      Thanks so much for your well-thought-out reply – you’ve really pinned down some of the issues that I want to engage with. In particular I am interested by the way in which fictional histories and lores are developed. It would make sense that there is someone behind the scenes with that specific role and I suspect it is the case with the Elder Scrolls (which is GREAT imho – lucky old archivists, getting to work with such an awesome collection of documents!). But, and correct me if this is just the fluffy archaeological part of my brain, I can imagine that in MMOs where storylines are more player-lead I can imagine that lore is more fluid and develops somewhat independently of the developers? I know absolutely nothing on the subject, however.

      Another fascinating thing was your specifically archaeological approach to playing the games. I suspect that because you are a ‘real archaeologist’ then this is a somewhat different approach to one taken by a non-archaeologist, but I’m still interested in it. Indeed one of my sidelines of enquiring in writing this thesis will be to compare the gaming techniques of archaeologists and non-archaeologists.

      • With MMOs like WoW, there is a split regarding Lore (with a capital L) and more personal stories. Within the framework of World of Warcraft, there is certainly a set of rules to the stories of races and conflicts and a shared history out of which the game-world grows and changes, but that story is known so well to hardcore fans that groups become quite conservative in the protection of that story. Think of them as Christian Fundamentalists or ultra-Orthodox Jews. More progressive or even casual players use Lore as a backdrop to make the setting more real for questing which can drive some players nuts. “Why would a Blood Elf where Dwarven armor?”

        Then there’s the more personal lore, which in WoW is server-based, a server housing thousands of players in dozens or hundreds of guilds, where certainly players and guilds gain notoriety, status, privilege, etc., and in-world events (including hacks) create a server-based history and mythology wholly separate from the game-world composed by the software developer.

        When I play a game like Elder Scrolls IV or V, the archaeologist and explorer in me do a couple of things. First, I do a few quests and talk to *everyone*, all of the NPCs in a village or town to learn, learn, learn. I study. I collect. I read all those gorram books. And then it’s off to the wilderness. My eye is always caught be unnatural (e.g., not nature-made) construction, so I investigate. I document.

        In an MMO, I like to go off by myself to explore. I could give a damn about gear sets and player-vs-player. Instead, I level up my toons so they are strong enough and geared enough to survive attacks and the environment, and then I go play. This drives guildies up the wall and disappoints a lot of other people who want to get on with things, but I dawdle inside instances, explore every nook and cranny, loot everything I can find (shameful behavior for an archaeologist, I know), but I also do try to help my guild or pick-up-group (PUG) defeat the bosses if only to find an epic or legendary piece of gear. One of the best compliments I ever received when running around Orgrimmar was from a random player who complimented me on a vintage axe that had dropped in Karazhan. I liked it because it was old. At level 80, it’s certainly useless for me as a weapon, but I like it. I found it. And it reminds me of an earlier time.

        Let me know if you have more questions. I think you’re topic’s great.


  7. Pingback: Unearthed: 15th May 2013 « The Archaeology of Tomb Raider

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